A lost brother comes to life

Self-portrait by Deyo.

Self-portrait by Deyo.

John Kedzie Jacobs was in his 80s when he discovered, in the attic of his childhood home in Highland, a trove of letters to and from his older brother, Edward, who had died in the Spanish Civil War in 1937. For twelve years, the now 95-year-old Jacobs has been writing about the memories revived and transformed by his discovery.

He has assembled the letters, his brother’s artwork, and his own commentary in the recently published The Stranger in the Attic: Finding a Lost Brother in His Letters Home, a searching portrait of Edward and his times — the Depression, the New York City Art Students League of the 1930s, and the idealism of young Communists going off to fight Fascism. Jacobs will read from the book and sign copies at the Golden Notebook in Woodstock at 4 p.m. Saturday, February 22.

Having written a great deal about my ancestors and the writings they left behind, I know how powerful it can be to learn about their personalities and try to understand how their stories — both personal and historical — feed into my own life. It’s riveting to watch Jacobs at this task, as he grapples with a lifetime of hazy, ambivalent images of his brother, suddenly expanded by the vibrant voice that appears in the letters.


Edward Deyo Jacobs was born in 1913, three years before his sister Dedi and five years before John. The two boys had a contentious relationship, augmented by Edward’s artistic, anarchic nature and John’s determination to be “a regular guy.” Their mother, Bertha Deyo, had grown up on a family farm in Gardiner, near New Paltz, then escaped to Europe, followed by Cornell University. She met Ned Jacobs, a history major at Cornell, married him, and then found herself back on the land when he bought an apple farm in Highland.

Despite their financial struggles, Ned and Bertha Jacobs managed to scrape together enough money to provide a few years of private schooling for each of their three children. From Oakwood, the Quaker boarding school in Poughkeepsie, Edward wrote, on May 1, 1928:

Dear Mother,

…I had two of my poems published in The Purple and the Gold. Come over and see me soon please. I will show you the whole bunch. The new [school] catalog has come out. I didn’t know what a fine place this is until I read it. It sure sounds great.